The Power of Knowledge and The Powerlessness of Ignorance

It is an old adage that knowledge is power. Understanding the how and why of life allows one to maneuver and manipulate their surroundings more easily. However, from this adage, we can garner a parallel truth: if knowledge is power, lack of knowledge must be powerlessness. If one lacks the ability to make informed decisions and perceptions, they will often act in a way that is detrimental to themselves and others. Worse, those who possess knowledge can manipulate those who don’t. Toni Morrison understood how knowledge can be a weapon yielded against those without it. Her 2008 novel A Mercy features numerous instances of its protagonist Florens being confused and ignorant of the truth. The novel highlights both the ways that ignorance harms Florens and the ways that other characters weaponize that ignorance against her. Though the novel was written before 2008, the ideas contained within A Mercy apply to the financial crisis, for bankers and investors had taken advantage of Americans who didn’t understand the potential consequences of their actions.

What does it mean to be ignorant in Florens’s world? She knows her letters, after all; she can read and write. But despite this one advantage she has, Morrison presents her as outpaced by the events around her. This idea is introduced early, as Florens begins to tell her story: “Often there are too many signs, or a bright omen clouds up too fast. I sort them and try to recall, yet I know I am missing much…. Let me start with what I know for certain.” Throughout the novel, Florens consistently demonstrates a lack of knowledge. She wanders through the woods, unsure of her direction, noting her confusion. For example, when religious villagers accuse her of being the Black Man’s minion, she responds initially, “I am not understanding anything except that I am in danger.” At the climax of Florens’s story, her ignorance has highly detrimental effects on the child she is tasked to watch. Unsure how to stop the boy from crying, she grabs him too hard. “I am trying to stop him not hurt him,” she insists. “That is why I pull his arm. To make him stop. Stop it. And yes I do hear the shoulder crack but the sound is small, no more than the crack a wing of roast grouse makes when you tear it, warm and tender, from its breast. He screams screams then faints. A little blood comes from his mouth hitting the table corner. Only a little.” Here, Florens’s inexperience has damaging effects on Malaik; she does not know how to calm him, and she minimizes the extent of his injuries. Finally, Florens’s story ends with the last and most pervasive mystery of her life: why did her mother give her up? She concludes her narrative with this haunting uncertainty. “I will keep one sadness. That all this time I cannot know what my mother is telling me. Nor can she know what I am wanting to tell her. Mãe, you can have pleasure now because the soles of my feet are hard as cypress.” Because she never knew that her mother’s choice to give her up was out of love, she was always eager to please. But now, because she has experienced a betrayal identical to that initial one, she is jaded and angry. Had she known that her mother was trying to save her and not hurt her, she might have matured differently.

While Florens’s ignorance affects her development and her understanding of the world, that ignorance in isolation is not as harmful as the way it is weaponized against her. Her naivete, spurred by that sense of abandonment from her mother, allows other characters to take advantage of her. Rebekka, for example, finds amusement in “Florens’ eagerness for approval. ‘Well done.’ ‘It’s fine.’ However slight, any kindness shown her she munched like a rabbit.” Because Rebekka is her mistress and praise and kindness like this is the only compensation Florens gets for good work, Rebekka is using Florens’s abandonment to increase her productivity as a slave. Scully, too, sees the potential for taking advantage of the girl’s ignorance and naivete: “if he had been interested in rape, Florens would have been his prey. It was easy to spot that combination of defenselessness, eagerness to please and, most of all, a willingness to blame herself for the meanness of others.” It is this same innocence that allows the blacksmith to enter a sexual relationship with her. Though neither party views the encounters as rape, the blacksmith certainly knows that Florens is childlike and trusting, for he uses that ignorance against her after she hurts Malaik. He accuses her of having become a slave to her own obliviousness; “Your head is empty and your body is wild,” he says. Thus, her ignorance acts as a weapon for the people who wish to control and hurt her.

Being taken advantage of for one’s inexperience and ignorance is not a scenario that is isolated to Florens, nor is it only contained within the pages of A Mercy. Through other works, such as Angela Flounoy’s The Turner House and Michael Lewis’s The Big Short, it becomes apparent the way that ignorance harmed the homeowner in the events leading up to the 2008 housing market crash. In The Turner House, Viola Turner refinanced her mortgage, an option that seemed favorable at the time. However, that choice led to a lot of debt the family can’t pay off, and even if they can, it isn’t worth it for a house nobody lives in. Thus, a lack of knowledge is harmful to the ignorant. In The Big Short, meanwhile, average American homebuyers are manipulated by corrupt bankers who want to loan them a subprime mortgage, so that it can be repackaged and sold as a Triple-A-rated bond. Technically, the homebuyers took out loans they couldn’t pay back, and therefore one might argue that they deserved the evictions or bankruptcies that followed. However, they didn’t understand what they were doing and were guided by others to do what was against their best interest. 

Finance is incredibly complicated, and although most if not all Americans will have to engage with it at some point in their lives, few understand it. Therefore, they must trust bankers and accountants and other finance experts to advise them on how best to manage their money. Although these people can provide a great service in helping people, they can also weaponize their clients’ ignorance against them. Similarly, in A Mercy, Florens is innocent and ignorant, and the people in her life take advantage of that. It’d be ideal for Florens if she could have learned the things she is ignorant of and be less naïve. However, she is a child, and children—and people of all ages—are always going to be innocent. Florens should have been protected from the people who want to exert power over her. Similarly, most Americans will never be financial experts, and they shouldn’t have to be. Instead, the law should take measures to protect them from bankers and accountants who intentionally advise them to make ruinous decisions.

The Moved and the Shaken of the 2008 Financial Crisis

Just as King Lear depicts a war started by powerful actors without discussion of the commoners who died or were wounded on the battlefield, The Big Short presents a financial war. The “tug-of-war” between the short sellers of the housing market and the Wall Street banks may not take place on a battlefield, but it still leaves a trail of loss behind it. The narrative Michael Lewis portrays is one that only captures the story of the movers and the shakers of the financial sector while ignoring the broader costs: the loss of jobs, homes, and financial security for ordinary people. Though The Big Short tells a riveting tale of the spiral towards economic recession, by ignoring the perspectives of the everyday Americans moved by events outside their control, it fails to truly capture the fallout of the 2008 market crash. For a book that does capture this multiplicity, one might turn to The Turner House by Angela Flournoy. Not only does this book feature the effects of the crumbling housing market on ordinary people, but it reminds us of the importance of multiplicity of perspectives in storytelling. While The Big Short fails to adequately portray the effects of the housing market crash, The Turner House presents the stories Lewis didn’t tell. Because Flournoy focuses on multiple perspectives, she captures a more complete story.

Although it is impossible to share every perspective in a single story, the importance of a variety of narratives is forgotten in The Big Short. The 2008 financial crisis impacted millions of Americans in a myriad of ways, yet the crash marks the end of the book. When Steve Eisner decides to become a nicer person and Michael Burry steps away from his money management business, their story, as it is told by Michael Lewis, ends. However, their actions—and the actions of the Wall Street banks, issuing fraudulent loans—have long-lasting repercussions, something Steve Eisner acknowledges: “The upper classes of this country raped this country. You fucked people. You built a castle to rip people off.” The stories of the “raped” and the “fucked,” though, are not a part of Lewis’s tale. He does not follow up on the migrant workers the banks “harvested” because of their deceptively high credit scores. He doesn’t talk about all the people tricked into taking subprime loans. And the countless foreclosures and evictions as a result are nowhere to be found.

For a tale like that, one would have to read The Turner House. While Lewis focuses on the monetary cost of the 2008 market crash, Flournoy manages to encompass the human cost. As Lelah is evicted, she “put her hands on the things she owned, [thought] about them, and [decided] against carrying them to her Pontiac.” In this scene, as Lelah must instantaneously disconnect herself from most of her possessions, we see the real effects of Wall Street’s actions. As Lelah leaves, Flournoy writes, “The only way to hold on to some dignity, to maintain the tiniest sense of control, was to leave now.” Here, we see Lelah desperately try to salvage dignity and control along with the photographs and important documents. Along with these losses, the loss of a home also means severing one’s sentimental connection to a place. The Turner siblings must determine what to do with the Yarrow house in the light of the debts their mother owes on it. To get rid of it, however, is heartbreaking, for Viola is sure she will return there. This is the place where Lelah, Cha-Cha, and Troy each flock to when suffering. It is where Francis “allowed himself to hope” for a better future. These losses, among many others, Michael Lewis does not account for in The Big Short

Not only does The Turner House complete the narrative set up in The Big Short, but it encourages readers to think beyond the covers of the novel. From the very onset of the story, Flournoy repeats the motif of multiple perspectives. For example, The Turner House begins by telling the tale of Cha-Cha being snatched out of his bed in the middle of the night by a haint. Although the oldest six of the Turner children all swear by what they saw, their father insists, loudly and authoritatively, “’There ain’t no haints in Detroit.’” Here, we see the beginning of conflicting views on the same event, an idea that will continue as Cha-Cha begins seeing the haint again in his old age. When he inquires of each of his siblings, sequentially, their opinions of the haunting, they counter with a myriad of perspectives. Francey, for example, doubts what she saw; “I remember thinking there was a haint up in your room…. We were young,… so I don’t know.” Lonnie meanwhile stands by what he saw as a child: “I believe you. Why wouldn’t I?” Berniece mounts on Cha-Cha’s tale with a haint story of her own; Quincy and Russell imply Cha-Cha’s gone crazy; Miles, Duke, Sandra, Troy, and Lelah only want to talk about the titular house; and Cha-Cha can’t even speak to Marlene or Netti. Thus, Flournoy demonstrates how a single event resonates differently with each sibling. That idea is reinforced when she reveals the context behind Francis’s dismissal of the haint: he too had seen a haint every night since his mother left, but “[s]tarting his first evening in Detroit, and every night for the rest of his life, Francis saw nothing. Not hide nor hair of the haint that had helped give his life purpose. He spent no small amount of time pondering why…. Either way, his conclusion was the same: there ain’t no haints in Detroit.” 

The idea of multiplicity of perspectives is picked up in each conflict of the narrative: each sibling wants to do something different with the Yarrow house, for example; Lelah has different ideas about what’s best for Brianne than she does; each sibling has a different understanding of their parents and of each other. Even the narration reflects this theme; The Turner House is told in limited third-person style from the perspectives of eight different characters. The limited point of view serves to mirror real life; each character has a perspective on themselves and on each other but never knows what others are thinking. However, by portraying many perspectives, Flournoy opens the readers up to the thoughts of others, drawing our attention to the importance of other narratives beyond our own. Because we see how one can impact others, we see the ripple effect of an action; it expands ever outward in a widening bubble. Even though The Turner House does not engage directly with the housing crisis of 2008 like The Big Short does, its understanding of scale can fill in the gaps left at the end of Micheal Lewis’s book. If one uses images like these as a reference (particularly images like number eleven, nineteen, or twenty-four) and imagines that each house in those images is a house on Yarrow, with a multitude of persons and stories within their walls, The Turner House suddenly becomes the story of the way millions were impacted by the housing crisis. Because Flournoy stresses the importance of multiplicity of perspectives, her novel works to encompass the perspectives of all those moved by more powerful actors. 

Thus, we understand the ways The Turner House succeeds in telling the story of a housing market crash. Because Flournoy draws our attention to a myriad of perspectives, she reminds us to think about the scale in which a single event or a single person can affect many more. Meanwhile, The Big Short only portrays the market crash without presenting the effects for ordinary people. Understanding the contrast between these two books allows us to answer an important question: Why is multiplicity in storytelling important? Not every story can get told, in a novel or in life. But if we keep thinking about the stories that are not on the page but beyond it, we can get closer to understanding others’ perspectives. It allows us to keep in mind those who are moved by our actions, so we can act in a kind, humanitarian way.

Exchanging Something for Nothing in King Lear

“Nothing will come of nothing,” Lear tells his daughter in one of the most famous lines of Shakespeare’s tragedy, King Lear. The idea Lear expresses is one that can be found in disciplines ranging from commerce to chemistry; the law of conservation of energy, for example, states that the total energy in a system remains constant and is only transferred from one thing onto another. However, does this idea of conservation—of exchanging one thing equally for another—always hold true? Especially in a play that ends so tragically, as Lear clings to the body of his murdered daughter, does one always get back what they give? To understand this question, two financial terms for exchanges become useful. According to Investopedia, swap can defined as “a derivative contract through which two parties exchange the cash flows or liabilities from two different financial instruments.” Similarly, liquidation can be defined as “the process of bringing a business to an end and distributing its assets to claimants.” The presumption of each of these exchanges is that both parties are willing and able to make such an exchange and therefore will receive something of equal value to what they give away. However, when Lear foolishly relinquishes his title and power for retirement or when Gloucester blindly swaps his loyal son for his disloyal son, nothing is left where there once was something. Thus, when we use terms like liquidation or swap as a lens through which we look at King Lear, we begin to notice unfair exchanges; this contributes to the theme of injustice in the play.

Although financial terms may seem inapplicable to King Lear, if one is paying attention, they will see exchanges—or swaps—from the very onset of the play. In both the main plot about Lear and his daughters and the mirroring subplot about Gloucester and his sons, the old men attempt to exchange one thing for something else that they believe to be of equal value. Lear, viewing his political power as a liability due to his old age, attempts to swap it out for retirement. He tells his daughters, “Know that we have divided / In three our kingdom; and ‘tis our fast intent / To shake all the cares and business from our age, / Conferring them on younger strengths, while we / Unburthened crawl toward death.” He makes another exchange when he disinherits Cordelia: “With my two daughters’ dowers digest the third; / … / I do invest [Goneril and Regan] jointly with my power, / Pre-eminence, and the large effects / That troop with majesty.” The focus on property in these lines—dividing Cordelia’s inheritance and investing it in Goneril and Regan—demonstrates that Lear is swapping one daughter who he believes doesn’t love him for two who do. Finally, like Lear, Gloucester also swaps his children because he mistakenly believes Edgar has staged a plot against his life. “[O]f my land,” he says, “Loyal and natural boy, I’ll work the means / To make thee capable.” Here, he transfers the inheritance of his legitimate son onto his illegitimate one. Each of these events serve as inciting incidents to the rest of the narrative. Thus, we see how swapping initiates much of the conflict.

Paying attention to these exchangeswe begin to notice that many of them are unequal. Lear may gain retirement after trading away his title, but he also loses his power and himself. He realizes this when he berates Goneril for denying him one hundred knights: “Does any here know me? This is not Lear. / Does Lear walk thus? Speak thus? Where are his eyes?” He asks, “Who is it that can tell me who I am?” And the Fool, knowing that Lear has lost himself in all he has given away, replies, “Lear’s shadow.” Lear has, unbeknownst to him, swapped his power for powerlessness. Likewise, Lear exchanges the love of Cordelia for the love of Goneril and Regan, yet their love turns to hate and is therefore not equal to what he lost. Similarly, Edmund betrays his father at the first opportunity, demonstrating that Gloucester too has swapped a good son for one unequal to him in character. In losing much and gaining little, something was swapped for nothing.

Thus, we begin to see how “nothing will come of nothing” and other assumptions of equivalent exchange are debunked by the tragedy. Sometimes something can come from nothing; this can be seen by Edmund gaining his brother’s inheritance through trickery or Goneril and Regan gaining power over their father. But more often in the play, something gets turned to nothing. Cordelia and Edgar both lose their inheritances through no fault of their own; Gloucester loses his eyes for blindly trusting Edmund. But the loss that draws the most attention is the loss Lear feels after his expulsion, as he wanders the heath, bemoaning the cruelty of his daughters. Here, we see the idea of liquidation become relevant. Once again, liquidation refers to the exchange of assets for their equal value in cash. However, if we use the literal definition of liquify—to turn something to liquid—Lear’s trek across the heath takes on new significance. The power the old king once has—his title, his knights, his property—is lost in exchange for the pelting rain. When Goneril and Regan bit by bit reduce Lear’s assets and eventually “[s]hut up [their] doors” to him, he becomes like the “[p]oor naked wretches, wheresoe’er you are, /  That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm.” He wonders, “How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides, / Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you / from seasons such as these?” Here, Lear is “naked” and “houseless,” which both imply lack. He lacks what he has unwittingly traded in; now, he must reckon with the storm, his possessions liquified and gone. 

Gloucester who has likewise been cast out of his home, blind and suicidal, muses, “As flies to wanton boys, we are to th’ gods, / they kill us for their sport.” Thus, we see the central theme of Shakespeare’s tragedy: the world is unjust. This theme becomes especially apparent when we look for instances of swaps and liquidation. Characters are not returned what they have given. In a denouncement of Lear’s belief early in the play, nothing came from something. It is worth noting that, through this analysis, one could almost read King Lear as a critique of capitalism. After all, if the swaps and liquidation of this narrative result in the expulsion of old men into a bitter storm, might unequal exchanges do something similar in real life? No one should be able to swap one child for another; no daughters should be able to liquidate their father’s assets until he is left with nothing. However, this play demonstrates that injustice will always exist no matter the circumstances. It is never guaranteed that everyone will get back what they have given. Sometimes, one can turn nothing into something. But other times, everything is lost for nothing.